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Music Theory exams

As instrumental skills progress, development in music theory and musicianship becomes increasingly important in helping students to perform with sensitivity, understanding and confidence.

ABRSM’s Music Theory exams aim to give students a thorough understanding of the building blocks of music, starting with the basics of rhythm and notes, and going on to cover harmony and counterpoint, composition, and a broad knowledge of western music, including composers and their works, structure, style and period.

Each Music Theory paper is marked out of a total of 100, with 66 marks required for a Pass, 80 for a Merit and 90 for a Distinction.

Our benchmark

A longstanding ABRSM benchmark is that a pass at Grade 5 or above in Music Theory must be obtained before candidates can enter for Grades 6, 7 or 8 Practical exams. We believe that a thorough understanding of the elements of music is essential for a full and satisfying performance at these higher grades. (Grade 5 or above in Practical Musicianship or any solo Jazz subject also fulfils this prerequisite.)

Download the complete syllabus for Grades 1 to 8:

2018 improvements to Music Theory exams

We are making some small changes to our Music Theory papers at Grades 1 to 5. These will come into effect in all countries from 1 January 2018. Our aim is to create a better exam experience for candidates with more focus on the essential knowledge and understanding needed at this level.

2016 improvements to Music Theory exams

The 2016 Music Theory papers will include some small changes to the layout and wording for three questions as follows:

Grade 3, Question 8

For this question based on a given melody, the blank stave for the candidate to write on has been moved from the bottom of the page to just under the given melody.

Grade 4, Question 2

We have changed the order of the two options – writing a rhythm to given words and completing a four-bar rhythm using a given opening – so that the completing a rhythm option appears first.

Grade 5, Question 6

We have changed the wording for the melody writing question to make it clear that it’s not compulsory to include bowing or breathing marks. The wording has changed from:

Old wording

Indicate the tempo and other performance directions, including any that might be particularly required for the instrument chosen.

New wording

Put in the tempo, dynamics and other performance directions as appropriate.


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